Whenever fall comes around I remember one piece of advice I got early on in growing and harvesting herbs; always harvest roots in the Fall. The idea being that when the aerial portion of the plant dies back the energy is stored in the root making it more potent medicine. I use the same adage when harvesting bulbs and tubers as well. Some of the best medicinal herbs are harvested for their roots.
Elecampane, Marshmallow, Angelica, Burdock and the list goes on. Some of my farmer friends work at Banyan Farm, a local farm growing vegetables, western and Ayurvedic herbs. Right now they are gearing up for a big root harvest of Ashwagandha. This herb has gained a lot of popularity in the past few years.
Ashwagandha (Withania somniefera) is a perennial shrub in its native habitat of India and the middle east. In Southern Oregon we grow Ashwandha as an annual as it is very sensitive to frost. It is in the Solanacea family along with culinary favorites like tomatoes, peppers and potatoes. The leaves are reminiscent of Datura and are dull green with a softly velvety feel. They have cute green bell shaped flowers that eventually yield to small red cherry like fruit. One of the other common names for Ashwagandha is “Indian Winter Cherry”.
This herb has been used for millennia in the ancient medicinal system of India, Ayurveda. Ayurveda attempts to balance the mind, body and spirit. It is considered a holistic approach to health care and includes not only herbal remedies but massage, acupressure and lifestyle practices like yoga and meditation. There are many well developed texts describing the system.
Ashwagandha is considered an adaptogen. These are particularly useful remedies in herbal medicine. They are tonifying, aid with the regulation of body systems and help us adapt to stress. Adaptogens are generally considered safe to use and have few contraindications. Some other great adaptogens are tulsi, licorice and ginseng. Ashwagandha is also known as Indian Ginseng. It has a lot of similar properties to American ginseng. In numerous studies it has been shown that Ashwagandha improves brain function, relieves stress, improves musculoskeletal health and helps maintain healthy reproductive systems. Particularly, there are numerous studies documenting the positive effect of the herb on male infertility issues.
For ingestion the root is dried and ground into a powder which can then be added to honey, ghee (clarified butter) or water. You could also make the dried root into an alcohol based tincture or brew the root into a decoction or tea. The leaf, flowers and seeds have medicinal properties as well. Although Ashwagandha is considered quite safe to consume and used as a household cure it is important to consult someone skilled in herbal medicine to help you determine the appropriate dosage and whether it is safe for you to take this herb. Some contraindications could include prescription medications, breastfeeding or pregnancy.
How to Grow:
Ashwagandha is fairly easy to grow. The seeds look very similar to ground cherry or tomatillo seeds. They germinate best at temperatures between 70-90 degrees. I start them as I would tomato seeds. In rows seeded in open flats of potting soil that are then placed on a heat mat. Because the plants are frost sensitive, start them indoors in a sunny spot or in a greenhouse for best results. Plants will perennialize in growing zones 9-12. If you want to harvest your roots for medicine or save seed from the fruit be sure to plant in late winter/early spring to allow the plants to reach maturity. Transplant seedlings after the danger of frost has passed at about two feet by 1 foot spacing. Plants will grow to around 2 feet in height. If you live in a warm place, give your seedlings more room to grow as they can become quite bushy. If you are growing these for medicine, plant them in a place where they will be easy to dig up without disturbing other plants too much. Ashwagandha requires full sun and well draining soil. The plants are quite drought tolerant and have low water needs.
How to Harvest:
Use a digging fork or garden trowel to loosen the soil around the plant. Pull the plant gently by the aerial portion to free it from the ground. Shake off excess soil. Start by washing the roots and cutting off the greens. Chop the roots when they are wet. They will be easier to cut than dry roots. After your roots are clean and cut into small pieces, lay out to dry on a screen. Leave the screen in a dry space with good airflow. Once your roots are dry, store them in a jar for later use.
Ambiye, V. R., Langade, D., Dongre, S., Aptikar, P., Kulkarni, M., & Dongre, A. (2013). Clinical evaluation of the spermatogenic activity of the root extract of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in oligospermic males: a pilot study. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013.
Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian journal of psychological medicine, 34(3), 255-262.
Mishra, L. C., Singh, B. B., & Dagenais, S. (2000). Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha): a review. Alternative medicine review, 5(4), 334-346.
Mishra, L. C., Singh, B. B., & Dagenais, S. (2001). Ayurveda: a historical perspective and principles of the traditional healthcare system in India. Alternative therapies in health and medicine, 7(2), 36-43.
Parasuraman, S., Thing, G. S., & Dhanaraj, S. A. (2014). Polyherbal formulation: Concept of ayurveda. Pharmacognosy reviews, 8(16), 73.
Sengupta, P., Agarwal, A., Pogrebetskaya, M., Roychoudhury, S., Durairajanayagam, D., & Henkel, R. (2018). Role of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) in the management of male infertility. Reproductive biomedicine online, 36(3), 311-326.
Singh, N., Bhalla, M., de Jager, P., & Gilca, M. (2011). An overview on ashwagandha: a Rasayana (rejuvenator) of Ayurveda. African journal of traditional, complementary and alternative medicines, 8(5S).
Written by Taryn Hunter